Green open spaces have provided the perfect meeting places for many of us over the past few months. But even though the return of indoor mingling is on the horizon, and we may be bored of walking being our only option for socially-distanced human contact, the benefits of spending time outdoors remain.
Editor Jane Garton looks at why immersing ourselves in nature is so good for health and wellbeing.
Nature provided solace and nurture for many of us during the endless weeks of lockdown and now, although the end of restrictions is in sight, there is every reason to continue reaping its many benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing.
The power of nature
According to a study from Cornell University even 10 minutes spent outdoors can help to reduce physical and mental stress[i]. Time spent in natural spaces was found to be the most effective when it comes to improving mood, focus, blood pressure and heart rate. Even better it’s a great way to top up your vitamin D daily quota. Produced by the action of the sun’s rays on the skin vitamin D helps us among other things use calcium which is essential for healthy bones and teeth. It also plays a major role in the health of our immune system.
Going for a walk, listening to birdsong, exploring woods and glades, spending time in the garden and even taking the plunge and going for a wild swim are just some of the ways of taking advantage of the many gifts the natural world has to offer.
Keep on walking
Whether you choose to walk in your local park or further afield, walking is the perfect exercise. What’s more it’s free, requires no special equipment and the risk of injury is low. And stepping out briskly helps you build stamina, burn excess calories as well as strengthening your heart.
Make it a walk in the park or woodland and you increase the benefits further as spending time in green spaces has been found to have the same benefits as a visit to the sea. Studies have also shown that ‘awe’ walks where you set out to look at something that triggers a feeling of wonder and excitement has a powerful effect on mood[ii].
Try forest bathing
Forest bathing originated in Japan in the 80s as a response to mass urbanization, disconnection from the land and the results of unhealthy lifestyles in large overcrowded cities. Shinrin Yoku which translates literally as ‘forest bath’ involves immersing yourself in the atmosphere of woods and trees.
Research shows that inhaling the scents given off by trees can benefit our health. A study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that the aroma given off by trees can improve immune function.[iii] This is because the phytoncides (essential oils from the trees) increase the activity of natural killer cells in the body, which kill off infected cells. Forest bathing has also been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reduce pulse and heart rate.
Spending time in the garden is as good for wellbeing as living in a wealthy neighbourhood. So says a study from the University of Exeter and the Royal Horticultural Society charity[iv]. In the study the researchers found that 71% of people who used their garden reported good general health, compared to 61% per cent of those who didn’t.
The study also revealed that those who regularly spent time in their gardens were also more likely to visit nature elsewhere once a week and that those with access to a private garden had higher psychological wellbeing. Meanwhile, those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines. The benefits applied whether people spent their time gardening or simply relaxing.
But what if you don’t have a garden? Growing something in a window box or container will give the same feelings of hope, anticipation, excitement and engagement as you would get from outdoor gardening say the experts. So why not create a herb garden on your window sill and as well as the therapeutic benefits you will gain an endless supply of fresh herbs for cooking.
Take the plunge
We all know that swimming is good for us but doing endless lengths of the pool can become boring. As a result, a growing number of people are diving into the nation’s rivers, lakes and surrounding seawater where, surrounded by nature and ever-changing scenery, it is impossible not to be inspired.
So what are the benefits of what is now known as wild swimming? One of the most notable comes from being immersed in a large quantity of very cold water. This increases our white blood cell count while at the same time stimulating the lymphatic system and boosting circulation. It’s also been suggested that ‘green exercise’ such as wild swimming helps to foster a more positive mind-set, reduces feelings of fatigue and anxiety and even improves our chances of sticking to regular workouts.
[iii] Wen, Y., Yan, Q., Pan, Y. et al. Medical empirical research on forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku): a systematic review. Environ Health Prev Med 24, 70 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12199-019-0822-8